Two more chapters after this one…
This is a work of creativity. As such, you may see words, concepts, scenes, actions, behaviors, pictures, implements, and people that may or may not be socially acceptable and/or offensive. If you are sensitive to adverse and alternative subject matter of any kind, please do not proceed, because I guarantee you’ll find it here. You have been warned. Read at your own risk.
I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…
Chapter 92—Getting Ready for Christmas
I’m awakened by small slaps on my face… very small. What the hell?
I open my eyes to my daughter’s chubby little face. It takes me a moment to get my bearings. I’m not quite sure what has happened.
I stretch to find that I’m in my bed, still fully dressed, and Minnie is in her PJ’s. How did we get in this predicament?
Once I’m able to focus a bit more, I realize that my daughter is sealed inside of a three-walled pillow fort, of which my body is the fourth wall. And it suddenly makes sense. Christian put us here. I fell asleep in the window seat with Minnie in my arms. I just didn’t want to sleep alone again, even if it meant being crunched in the dreaded window seat. But I slept like the dead, and awoke to my daughter, not Christian. So, I still don’t know if I slept alone.
“Come on, Minnie Mouse,” I say, getting out of bed and retrieving my babbling baby. “It’s bathtime…”
After a short stint at Helping Hands to make sure the place wasn’t going to crumble to the ground, I let the troops know that I’ll be working from home for the rest of the week and head out. I’ve got to get the house and the meal ready for Christmas in three damn days and I still have a little Christmas shopping left to do. I’m back at home by two and decide that I need a partner in crime. It would usually be Marilyn, but…
“Hey, what are you doing this afternoon?”
“Nothing. I don’t have any appointments until tomorrow. What’s up?”
“I need to do some shopping. Are you up to come with?”
“Sure. Sounds like fun. Where do you want to meet?”
“I’m looking for some particular decorations for the house and the table. Meet me at the Marketplace…”
So, I find myself running around the Marketplace with Maxie in the afternoon, picking out some of the corniest decorations and tchotchkes to turn my house and kitchen and tables into a winter wonderland. It’s Minnie and Mikey’s first Christmas, and I want it to be special.
“Good Lord, Steele, I know you have a mansion, but do you really have room for all this crap you’re buying?” Maxie scolds.
“Actually, I don’t think I have enough,” I reply. “I won’t know until I start putting things together and there’s a hole somewhere.” She stares at me for a moment. “What?”
“Are you okay?” she asks. Oh, no, we’re not having this conversation.
“No, I’m not okay,” I reply. “I found out this weekend that Christmas is going to be at my house. I put off doing decorations because there always seemed to be something more important going on. Now, I’m going to have a house full of guests—some of them from out of town, by the way—and I don’t have a single bulb, light, or piece of garland anywhere. I have no idea how many guests are actually going to be there, and I don’t have the help of my P.A. Quite frankly, I’m a bit panic stricken, but I’m just going to grab some shit, order some groceries, and make it do what it do. You’re invited, by the way.” She raises her brow.
“Ew, when you put it that way, I can see why you’re losing your mind. Thanks for the invite, but Phil and I will be with family. Speaking of P.A., have you heard from Gary yet? I twist my lips.
“Kinda,” I say, handing poinsettias to Chuck and Ben. “I sent the ‘hey bitch’ email to him and I get ‘hey bitch’ back.”
“Ow,” she says.
“Tell me about it,” I say, handing my Amex Black to the vendor. “I’m really starting to resent it. I didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t understand why I’m being ignored and treated this way. The psychiatrist in me can’t be logical right now. We’ve been friends for way too long for this shit.” I sign the receipt and retrieve my copy along with my card. The guys take turns running to the car while I continue shopping.
“You know these things take time,” Maxie says. “I don’t have all the details, but I’m assuming there’s a real hurtin’ put on him since we haven’t heard anything from him in weeks…”
“Max!” I hear a woman’s voice call out to my friend and I turn my head to see who it is.
“Jade, hey,” Maxie says in a friendly voice. Very friendly… familiar. “I thought you had class today.”
“Cancelled, last minute,” Jade says as she closes in on Maxie and they give each other those cheek hugs—the sincere ones, not the air kisses. What’s this? “Now, I’m scrambling to get a meal together for RJ and the boys. You know they’re hopeless without me.” She laughs and Maxie nods before turning to me.
“Ana, this is my friend, Jade. Jade, this is…”
“Ana Grey, of course. Everyone knows Ana Grey.” She smiles widely and extends her hand to me. “Max told me she knows you and I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been just dying to meet you.”
Strange. Max hasn’t told me a thing about you.
“Jade,” I say, returning her smile and accepting her proffered hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“At the risk of sounding forward,” she begins, leaning in to me conspiratorially. And here we go. Am I going to get some inappropriate question about my husband’s dick size? “Can we all hang out sometimes? Your fashion sense is insane, and I’d love some tips. I need to come out of the Mom-jean-mu-mu look!”
And I feel like shit.
“Sure,” I say, faking the biggest smile I can.
“Yeah, I’ll set up a lunch or a girl’s day or something,” Maxie intervenes, noting my discomfort.
“You know the rules,” Jade says cheerfully, “plenty of notice please!” She and Maxie laugh sincerely, and I so feel like the outsider. “Wow, Ana Grey shops at the Marketplace like the rest of us mere mortals! I feel so privileged!”
I know it was meant to be a compliment… or I think it was meant to be a compliment, but I still feel a little slighted.
“Well, I’d love to stay and chat,” she says, “but like I said, hungry men at my house. See ya Saturday, Max?” she adds, waving as she’s walking off, thank God.
“I’ll be there,” Maxie says, waving back. When she’s out of sight, Max turns to me.
“I’m sorry, Ana,” Maxie apologizes. For what, not telling me about your new friend sooner? “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot like that. I can fend her off if you don’t want to ‘hang out.’” She makes the finger quotes and I know she’s trying to let me off the hook.
“No, it’s okay,” I tell her. “Whatever is convenient for you guys. At least she didn’t ask me one of those terribly indiscreet sexual questions,” I say rolling my eyes. Maxie’s expression is horrified.
“What?” she inquires.
“Oh, yes,” I say, picking at something in a booth that I’m not even slightly interested in. “Any woman who suddenly feels ‘friendly’ with me will immediately ask me about my husband’s bedroom skills… or his dick size.” Maxie swallows hard.
“Oh, my God, you’re kidding!” she gasps. “I mean, I’m a woman. I can understand the curiosity… but that’s so crass and rude!” I nod.
“Oh, my friend,” I sigh, “you don’t know the half of it. It’s a tragic cross to bear.”
“Well, Jade’s not like that. I promise you,” she says, examining a nearby jewelry box. We’re silent for a moment, then I approach the elephant in the Marketplace.
“So, how did you guys meet?” I ask her, trying not to put too much emphasis on the topic although I’m chomping at the bit to know.
“She’s in my ‘Mommy and Me’ group,” Maxie says, examining the jewelry box more closely, considering the purchase. “She has four boys and her youngest, Blaine, is the same age as Mindy.” She hands the jewelry box to the vendor to be wrapped, finally deciding to purchase it.
“I didn’t know you were in a ‘Mommy and Me’ group,” I say, still trying not to pry, but really wanting to. Who is this Jade person? Why haven’t we met? Why hasn’t Maxie said anything to me about her? And what’s this Max shit? Her name’s not Max—it’s Maxie!
Suddenly, I realize the animated conversation in my head is one-sided and Maxie is looking at me questioning.
“What?” I ask, defensively.
“You got a new beau?” she asks. I frown. Did she hear about the Liam Alienation? I didn’t think that shit was public! Has he been talking to people??
“Why would you ask me that?” I ask, horrified. God, please, don’t let Liam be spreading untruths.
“You have a handful of tightie-whities. Christian doesn’t strike me as the type.” She points to my hands and I look down and realize that in an attempt to appear nonchalant, I’ve fisted two handfuls of briefs. Shit!
“No,” I say, trying to stack the underwear neatly the way I found them. I don’t have an answer for why I’m groping men’s underwear, so I don’t bother to offer one. It’s not like I have to, though. Maxie used to be my therapist. There’s no hiding shit from her.
“Out with it, Steele,” she says, reverting to my maiden name again.
“Out with what?” I say, still organizing the underwear. When I look over at her, she simply raises a brow at me. “I just… didn’t know you made a new friend, that’s all. No big deal.” I shrug, trying to downplay the situation. Maxie smiles at me as she hands the vendor her credit card.
“Ana,” she says, shifting her weight on her feet, “you’re right. It’s not a big deal. We get it, and we don’t hold any ill will, but the Scooby Gang isn’t really the Scooby Gang anymore. Phil and I have had a child. Gary is branching out on love with Marilyn—even though it’s not looking so great these days…” I roll my eyes and nod. “And no offense, but you, Val and Al have pretty much trio’ed off, for good reason. You and Al have always been the closest and now, he’s your corporate attorney—and Val married your brother-in-law, not to mention that whole cancer thing.
“Nobody’s pointing any fingers or complaining about being left out, but… we kinda were. You still include us in celebrations and things, and we know that you still love us, but we just don’t… hang out like we used to, and that’s okay. We’re growing up, but it leaves time and space to make new friends. Those things just happen. As long as you don’t just completely ditch us and leave us in the dust, we’re grown-ups and we know how real life goes. And face it, Steele… you have a new friend or three that hasn’t been introduced to me, and if you don’t, you should get out more.”
She winks at me, causing me to smile and push her with my shoulder. It’s strange seeing my friend make friends that I’m not privy to, or that we didn’t meet together, but she’s right. Things change, people change, and that’s okay, but during the course of those changes, it’s important not to let your valuable friendships fall by the wayside.
I really need to get in touch with Gary…
Sophie has quite the bit of decorating sense along with her extensive knowledge of food to be so young. She admits that it comes from things like watching Martha Stewart and such, so I’ve enlisted her help in decorating the house for as long as she feels like doing it, along with the unlucky members of the staff. I appear to be spending more time with Sophie than I am with my husband, but it’s also part of making sure that she’s not too bored for her Christmas vacation. It’s going to take all the way until Christmas to get the house finished, and this is a chore that I can’t delegate. We’re down in my parlor with the door closed, all of my wares from the Marketplace along with last year’s Christmas decorations strewn all over the room, trying to decide which decorations should go where.
There’s an insane wreath for the front door, and the “formal” Christmas tree will be in the grand entry with empty wrapped boxes underneath, but how many of the windows should have wreaths… and which ones?
How many lights is too many lights?
Is a life-sized nutcracker soldier at the guard booth a bit too much?
To tinsel or not to tinsel? That is the question…
Wait a minute… crawling babies that like to put everything in their mouths… not to tinsel! Definitely not to tinsel!
Where’s that blueprint of the house Jason showed me once?
Yep, this is going to be an epic undertaking, and I’ve got two days to make it happen… while Scrooge is at work, because I don’t want him kiboshing any of my ideas. I’ll do all the behind-the-scenes things tonight and tomorrow, like decorating the trees that are not in the “in-your-face” places, putting the lights and garland out and creating centerpieces and décor for flat surfaces. Then on Wednesday, we’ll tackle the big stuff, like the Nutcracker soldier, the lighted snowballs for the lawn, and the ice globe lanterns and snowball tree for the backyard. I would literally fight him on any of this if he tried to fight me, but hell, he may not even notice.
At the last minute, I find a nativity scene large enough to go on the lawn next to the drive outside of the gate that wasn’t one of those horrible cut-out scenes. I paid the fortune it costs for overnight shipping so that it’ll be here by Christmas Eve. Then I plot out how many people will be here for Christmas dinner. I lost count at the possibility of 20 – 30, so I just did a menu and grocery list for 40. I thought about having it catered, but that would mean people in my house that I really don’t know at Christmas. So, it looks like I’ll be breaking out the chef’s apron with Ms. Solomon and the staff.
It won’t matter. I’ve decided that since my marriage seems like it’s going through a bit of the for worse parts of our vows, I’m going to start taking joy in some of the things that I did when I was just Ana Steele—like cooking. For the first time, I’m regretting having someone staying in my condo. I wish I could go there and escape like I normally do, but it’s just location. Christian doesn’t spend a lot of time in the common places of the house, so if I plan a kitchen takeover a couple of times a week, he wouldn’t notice either way. Luckily, with the Christmas meal, I can definitely stretch my chef legs as long as I want.
We were able to get so much more done than I thought we would…
Beautiful, lush, green evergreen garland accented with plush red bows and delicate lighting line several doorways and nearly every balustrade except for the main staircase—that has to be done on Christmas Eve.
We managed to get the three trees on the sublevel decorated.
I’ve got a jillion centerpieces and table decorations, from silk flowers with candles and evergreen garland to wine glasses and hurricanes filled with lights, various color bulbs, acorns, and fake snow. They’ll be going on just about every surface that can accommodate them.
There are various wreaths—bulb wreaths, garland wreaths, flower wreaths, etc., on the windows and doors at the back of the house.
By early evening, I’m all tuckered out. My parlor—or workspace—looks like Tropical Storm Shaniqua hit it, but I’ll have to tidy up tomorrow when I get back to decorating.
It’s past dinner time and I’m just not in the mood for a large meal, so I ask Ms. Solomon if she wouldn’t mind making me one of her Hawaiian ham sandwiches. Curious, Sophie asks if she can have one, too. So, Ms. Solomon whips up two of the delicious creations along with a winter drink that makes my head spin.
“What is this?” I ask when I sip the sweet beverage.
“Cranberry-apple cider. I thought you might like a tiny bit of variety from your usual spritzer.”
“It’s delicious!” I exclaim. I look over at Sophie for confirmation, and half her drink is already gone.
“I think it’s a hit. We have to add this to the holiday menu. I’ll get a large drink dispenser tomorrow for easy service,” I say.
“No need, we already have one,” Ms. Solomon says.
“Will it be too much trouble?” I ask. She scoffs and waves me off.
“Not at all. Besides, I’m accustomed to the work that goes into making the holidays special,” she replies.
“It’s going to be a lot of work,” I warn. “I don’t even know how many people are going to be here.”
“More than fifty?” she asks. I shake my head.
“I lost my count somewhere between 20 and 30, and there’s usually a do-drop or three, so I’m preparing for 40.” Ms. Solomon’s brow furrows.
“Do-drop?” she asks. I nod.
“Random people who do tend to drop in… ‘do-drops.’” Realization dawns on her face.
“Okay, that makes sense,” she replies.
“Don’t worry,” I say, “I’ll be right here getting my hands dirty with you.”
“That’s not necessary,” Ms. Solomon scolds. “The staff and I will be able to handle it.”
“Oh, I welcome the task, believe me,” I say, taking another bite of the delectable sandwich.
“May I have another?” Sophie asks. I look over at her plate and there’s nothing left but crumbs. I can’t help but laugh.
“Of course, you can, sweet girl,” Ms. Solomon says as she begins to make another sandwich.
“Good, huh?” I say with a smile. Sophie nods.
“Really good!” she says. “Can you teach me how to make them?” Ms. Solomon raises her eyes to Sophie and it almost looks like she’s about to cry. I await her response, knowing the history of the sandwich.
“Of course,” she says, smiling sadly and hiding the crack in her voice. Her sadness doesn’t get past the very perceptive Sophie.
“I’m sorry,” Sophie says. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” Ms. Solomon shakes her head.
“It’s nothing, child,” she replies. “It’s just that… all these years, people have only asked me to make the sandwiches. They’re so quick and easy to do, but no one has ever asked me to show them how. It’s a good thing, don’t worry. I’m glad to give the recipe to someone new. Come. Get your apron. I’ll show you now.”
I watch with a strange sense of pride while Ms. Solomon shows Sophie how to make the delicious sandwich. Sophie catches on right away and makes a second sandwich for which I must be the guinea pig. She plates it perfectly and sets it in front of me.
“It’s delicious,” I say when I take a bite.
“Tell me the truth,” Sophie says. “Is it different than Ms. Solomon’s? Does it taste like I missed anything or heated the pineapple for too long?” She surprises me with her knowledge of food. She knows that if she heats the pineapple for too long, it changes the texture and usually the flavor.
“Sophie, it’s perfect,” I say, taking another bite. “May I have some more cider?” I ask with a full mouth of delicious ham, cheese, and pineapple. Ms. Solomon and Sophie laugh at me, and Sophie sits to eat her own sandwich while Ms. Solomon gets me another cider. The sandwich really is very good, and I happily sit there and eat the rest of it while Sophie and I discuss the plans for tomorrow.
We’re both pretty tuckered out after “dinner” and Sophie thanks me for including her in the decorating.
“I remember decorating stuff when Dad was home,” she says. “Me and Mom just… didn’t. I got some gifts and stuff, but the first real anything I remember since Mom and Dad split up was last Thanksgiving with you guys.” I feel sad for her knowing that.
“How do you feel this Christmas?” I ask. “I mean, you know…”
“With Mom being in jail?” she asks. “I don’t know. I don’t even think about it. If she wasn’t in jail, she’d be somewhere getting high, so what’s the difference? When I think about her and everything that happened, it really makes me mad, so I don’t think about it. I try to focus on things that make me happy. Does that make me selfish?”
It’s so sad that this 13-year-old girl has to ask herself questions like this—if it’s selfish for her not to think about her drug-addict mother who tried to sell her for a fix so that she can be happy.
“You’ll have to deal with it one day, but for right now, I think you’re doing just fine,” I reply. She hugs me around my waist and squeezes tight. The gesture catches me off guard and nearly takes my breath away.
“Thank you, Aunt Ana,” she says, her voice angelic. I embrace her warmly and kiss her hair.
“You’re welcome, Sophie,” I say, softly. “Now, get some sleep. We’ve got a lot to do, and I really can’t do it without my helper.” She pushes away from me and looks up at me with a smile.
“Yes, you can,” she says, sweetly, “but you won’t have to.” She smiles, then turns and walks through the family room towards her apartment.
“No… I can’t,” I whisper to her retreating form.
The children have been put to bed and I find myself tired, but still quite awake. I wander down to the movie room and sit in one of the luxurious chairs. They’re large and comfortable and they recline almost to a horizontal position. I scroll through the available movies with the remote and settle on The Lake House with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.
Yeah, this is perfect—two lovers separated by time that will never be together, it seems.
I get all the way to the part when Keanu’s character, Alex shows up at Kate’s birthday party—played by Sandra, of course—which she clearly didn’t want to have. As many times as I have watched this movie, I’ve always wondered how appropriate it is to invite people that neither of you knew to a birthday party for your girlfriend. She was doing her internship and she looked exhausted, but then she comes home to a house full of people, some of them strangers.
That kind of happened to me when Daddy adopted me, but I didn’t mind the party and the only stranger present was Brian’s doppelganger girlfriend, Ana, Jr. I wonder what ever happened to her and if she and Brian are still together.
I lean back in the chair and get comfortable watching one of my favorite scenes in the movie, when Alex and Kate are dancing outside while her birthday party is going on inside—two unlikely lovers falling in love at a very inopportune time. I remember that they kiss at the end of this scene.
How can someone who has committed themselves to someone even wrap their heads around the concept of kissing someone else? It’s something that I never could understand. Even when Liam was leaning in to kiss me, I knew it was wrong and all I could think was, “No, this ain’t Christian.”
I watch as they embrace each other passionately as Paul McCartney sings that song, This Is the Way It Should Be. I don’t remember the last time I heard that song, but I remember clearly the last time I thought of it. It was when Christian and I made love on the hood of his RS7 after our very first visit to a BDSM club. I remember thinking that nothing could go wrong as long as we were together—nothing…
The song ends as Alex and Kate get lost in their kiss.
I awake right where I fell asleep. There are no windows in the movie room, so I can’t tell if it’s morning. When I reach for the remote, I discover that I’m wrapped in a velour throw and I’m lying on a pillow.
Shit, these chairs are almost as comfortable as my bed!
I push the status button on the remote, waking the movie screen, and the time pops up in life-sized numbers… 8:53am. Whatever I’m going to do, it’s time to get up from here. I stand and stretch before grabbing my wayward hair and tying it in a knot behind me. The hair of the “short part” falls out and brushes my shoulder. Of course, I’m not bald over there anymore, but it’s still nowhere near as long as the rest of my hair. I’m used to that side doing its own thing, though.
I fold the throw and place it and the pillow neatly in the seat, then stumble my way to the kitchen. No one is in the kitchen when I arrive which is odd, but there’s still coffee in the coffee pot. I pour myself a large mug of black coffee and make my way back downstairs. I look at my parlor as I pass and it’s a tsunami of Christmas rubble. I groan when I see it and proceed to my office.
I check my calendar to see if anything important is happening today. If it is, it’s not in my calendar. Chuck informed me yesterday that Maddie and Nelson have opted to stay here over the Christmas holiday. That makes me happy. I know they would have slightly more privacy at the Bainbridge house, but Chuck does need to be on call, and having them that far away means that he has to schedule visits to see them. That kind of defeats the purpose of them coming to Seattle, doesn’t it? I type out a text to Gail that they’ll be staying with us until just after the new year and to prepare one of the guest rooms for their stay.
I open my email to touch bases with the world again. Carl has emailed me again about the auction for Tina’s jewelry. It’s going to be the day after Christmas. I can’t help but think how bad that marketing strategy is—well, maybe not. People are always looking for good deals at after Christmas sales, but that’s not the type of money that you would hope to pull in from a charity auction, is it?
Carl’s probably not even concerned about that. After having to deal with Tina’s brood of misfit children, he’s probably only concerned about getting everything taken care of and closing up shop. No doubt, at this time of year, that’s the soonest that he could get into the auction house and he simply didn’t want to wait.
To be honest, I can’t even imagine going to a jewelry auction right now. There’s just too much going on in the immediate to make plans for it even in the future. I send him an email and politely decline.
I spent part of yesterday sending out emails and texts to everyone that Christmas would be at the Crossing this year and asking that they RSVP that they’re aware that Christmas festivities will start somewhere around 2pm. And as I’m counting, I was right to prepare for 40 people. As I’m going through my emails, my phone rings with a text. It’s Grace.
**Are you coming in today? **
Uh, oh… is something wrong?
Ana: I hadn’t planned to. I’m getting the house and meal situated for Christmas. Do you need me? Is everything okay? **
Grace: Dammit, I forgot I dumped that on you at the last minute! I’m sorry. No, I was just waiting to see if there were any special plans for Christmas besides the holiday meal. **
Ana: Do you think it’s too late to arrange for Santa Claus to come by? I think it would be nice and I know we have the money in the budget. **
Grace: That’s a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that? I’ll arrange it. The kids will love it and so will the parents. I’ll put Helen and Ebony in charge of it on Christmas. Helen asked to work and Ebony loves kids. **
Ana: That sounds great, and don’t worry about me and Christmas. The task turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I’m stretching my long-dormant domestic legs. It’s great! You’re really going to love it. **
Grace: I’m so glad to hear that. When my mind is clear, I feel like I’m taking advantage of your talents and kindness. I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel that way. **
You have, but that statement is the best Christmas present you’ve ever given me.
Ana: Thank you, Grace. That means a lot to me. ❤ **
Grace: You mean a lot to me, Ana dear. Please don’t forget that even though I may behave like a horse’s ass sometimes. **
I literally laugh out loud.
Her final text is to tell me that she’s seeing her doctor this afternoon like I suggested and that she’s emailing me the confirmed final choices for tutors and teachers for my approval. That bump we faced was a pretty big one, but she is my mother-in-law after all, and hopefully, we’ve gotten past it and the future will look a little smoother.
I go through my emails and my heart leaps a bit when I see one from Christian. It falls like a block of lead when I realize that it’s work-related. I click on the email, knowing that he really wouldn’t send it to me unless it was important, knowing how I feel about GEH right now.
And it is.
It’s actually good news for me. The mandatory drug tests are nearly complete and out of all the people tested, so far only eight have returned with positive drug tests for various controlled substances. In a zero-tolerance company, this is grounds for immediate dismissal. The violators have indicated that they’ll sue, and even I with my limited knowledge of law and business know that they don’t stand even the slightest chance. The drugs are varied, even in a small group—marijuana, cocaine, meth, heroine—and the name at the top of the list? Deanna Carson!
Merry fucking Christmas, bitch!
I close the email and smile. This won’t be the last she hears from me, even though she doesn’t know that she’s hearing from me now, but it’s a really good start.
I look at my phone and decide that I need to bust a bit of a mission myself. I do a bit of Googling, dial some numbers, get stuck in a phone tree and after a bit of finagling, I get Gary’s number at his desk at City of Lights. He’s so busy at that place and I know that he won’t answer, but I have to try.
“Hello, you’ve reached the voice mail of Garrett Pope. I’m not available to take your call right now but leave me a message and I’ll call you back. Bye.”
“No, you won’t,” I say sadly before the phone beeps. “Hi, Gary. I know you told me to leave you alone… and that you couldn’t talk right now. I… I’ve just never known a time when we couldn’t talk, not since the first day we met.”
I clear my throat and realize that I’m getting choked up.
“Christmas is just a few days away… and no one should be alone on Christmas…”
I swallow my tears and keep talking.
“If you’re worried about running into her, she won’t be here,” I add with a sniff. “Just… call me… please…”
I end the call before bursting into tears. I’m emotional anyway trying to deal with Christian’s ire and the fucking holidays and the fact that I agreed to have Christmas at my house with only three days’ notice. I quickly dry my tears and turn my focus to something more constructive than the fact that two of the men in my life are rejecting me right now.
I need to take a shower and get my day started since there’s still so much to do. I take the elevator straight upstairs and make a B-line to my room. I really don’t want to explain tears to anyone this early in the morning. I strip out of my clothes and turn the shower on as hot as I can stand it. Then I get in, let the water run over my head, and cry.
It’s a cleansing cry, just to get out all the pent-up frustration—over nothing and everything, so that I’m not talking to Sophie about some random thing and it suddenly turns into a nostalgic tear-fest over some specific color of red.
Motown music will be piping through the communication system today.
I don a pair of yoga pants and an oversize cable-knit sweater—which suddenly gives me a great idea for the cookie bake. It’s actually going to spread over two days now since I have more ideas for cookies, and I’ll most likely be in the kitchen for three days. The grocery delivery will be coming today, and things have to start being prepared, like cooking three turkeys. There’s a science to cooking three turkeys for Christmas so that all the meat is hot for Christmas day. Two will be cooked and carved on Christmas Eve and the third will be cooked on Christmas day.
Then there are the many side dishes that will be prepared, the cookie tins I’m going to make, the desserts, the beverages, etc…
I walk across the hall to my babies room and open the door. There’s Keri fixing Minnie’s outfit, and Gail is on the floor playing with Mikey. When he sees me at the door, he pushes himself to his feet and just toddles right across the room to me.
Three women are staring gape-mouthed at my son. I look up at Gail and point to my son who is now holding onto my legs and looking up at me with a four-toothed drooling grin.
“Wha… ho… di… e… when di…?” I can’t even get a full sentence out. What I’m trying to ask is had he shown any progress towards walking besides the one or two steps we had seen him take. Gail just shakes her head and looks at me, wide-eyed.
“He just got up and started walking!” she says in amazement and turns to Keri. “Did you see that? He just got up and started walking!”
“Ah see! Ah see!” Keri says. “Whut a wanhduhful Chtissmas ptesant!”
“It is indeed!” I say, bending down to retrieve my son. “Mikey’s walking!” I beam. “Such a good boy. Are you going to teach your sister now?”
“Bah bah bah bah!” he says, patting both my cheeks with his hands. I’m all warm and happy inside to see my baby boy get up and walk on his own. I only wish I could have caught the moment on video, but I’m not too soon to forget it.
With the help of the staff and lots of additional labor that Gail had the foresight to hire, we’ve gotten all the decorating done before 3pm—all the trees, including the giant bulb tree in the backyard and the ice globe lanterns that can be seen from the lake. The big boat house and the boat house at the end of the dock are covered in lights along with some of the surrounding trees. The back balconies have been decorated with lights and giant illuminated candy canes. Giant bulbs grace the front lawn before you get to the portico and a large wreath greets you at the front door.
Sophie and I have started my extra Christmas cookie bake, which are additional batches of gingerbread and sugar cookies to be decorated in various ways. I’ve also got a million empty cookie tins to fill and give away. Even with four professional ovens, there’s going to be way too much going on to be hogging any stoves with cookies besides the traditional Christmas Eve cookie bake.
We’re just finishing the tree and stairs in the grand entry when Chuck arrives with Maddie and Nelson. I’m so glad they decided to stay with us this year. I give them warm hugs and introduce them to my gorgeous babies.
“Oh, that’s right!” Maddie says. “You were pregnant when we last saw you! My gosh, babies grow so fast!”
Knowing that he’s the topic of conversation, Mikey stands again and walks over to Maddie. Chuck’s eyes widen.
“When did that happen?” he asks, pointing at Mikey. I shrug.
“He just got up this morning and started walking,” I inform him. “He’s been running around ever since.”
“Well, what do ya know about that?” Chuck says in amazement. He doesn’t have any of his own children, so he’s experiencing everything first-hand through mine.
“Maddie, Nelson, I know you must be tired from your trip. Are you hungry? Would you like to eat something, or would you rather settle in first?”
Phase one of the Pre-Christmas Eve Cookie Cookoff continue with Maddie helping to shape the sweater cookies that came to mind this morning as well as the cutouts for gingerbread men, Christmas trees, and various other merry shapes to be decorated with icing and candy, including Mickey and Minnie Mice to celebrate my babies’ first Christmas.
Maddie and Nelson tell us their side of the legal battle with Joe over dinner, for which Christian still hasn’t joined us. I haven’t seen him since Sunday afternoon. Were it not for the little hints of his presence, I wouldn’t even know he still lived here. However, with the smell of fresh Christmas cookies filling the air, the sound of my favorite music piping through the sound system, and the fact that my baby boy is up and running around like he’s in a marathon, I find it difficult to be down in the mouth about anything right now.
I take a hot bubble bath to soothe my muscles as I know I have a very busy day ahead of me tomorrow—the rest of the Christmas cookies; the cooking for Christmas combined with entertaining Chuck’s parents when they get back from the festivities he has planned for them; making sure that Mikey who is now walking doesn’t get into any mischief… Jesus, I’m going to have to childproof the house now!
I nearly fall asleep in the bathtub, but I don’t. I climb out and slip into a warm nightshirt, crawl into bed, and say hello to the sandman.
Morning comes so much faster than I expect, but I’m greeted with something that I’ve come not to expect. Christian’s gone, but his side of the bed has been slept in. Maybe that’s why I slept so hard.
If he’s up this early, he’s obviously gone to work. I’m not surprised that he’s working on Christmas Eve. We both worked last year. I just took the day off to host Christmas.
Since I took a bath right before bed, I forego the shower and don yet another pair of yoga pants and a sweater—a Christmas sweater, to be exact. It’s a cute red and white off-the-shoulder oversized sweater with Santa heads lining the top and a winter wonderland lining the bottom. I peek in to check my babies and they’re both asleep, so I head downstairs.
To my delight, Sophie, Gail, and Maddie are all donning aprons and getting the kitchen ready for the mayhem that will be Christmas Eve. Ms. Solomon has agreed to allow us to invade “her” kitchen for the traditional Christmas Eve Cookie Bake as well as whatever dishes I choose to “help” with today with the condition that whatever remains to be done on Christmas that I allow her and the staff to complete it.
“The lady of the house shouldn’t be cooking on Christmas,” she scolds. “That’s why you hired me!” I smile and agree to her conditions. The only things that will be cooked today are two of the three turkeys and things that won’t degrade when you reheat them.
Our Christmas is going to be far from traditional. We’re going to have eight vegetable dishes, four pasta dishes, traditional dressing and my cheesy potatoes, turkey and ham, three different salads and an assortment of crudité, antipasto, hors d’oeuvres breads, pastries and desserts as well as a variety of beverages.
One of our pasta dishes will be a divine macaroni and cheese that Maddie makes. Everyone who has had it swears to it, including Keri.
Also, to my delight, Nelson and Chuck bond over long conversations out at the smoker. So, one of our turkeys and one of our hams will be slow smoked over Applewood.
Not to be excluded, Sophie has asked permission to prepare an ambrosia salad, while Keri has requested to be able to contribute Jamaican rice and peas. It will be quite the eclectic Christmas indeed.
By mid-afternoon, the house is alive with delicious aromas, laughter and Christmas carols when Windsor announces that Val and Elliot have arrived. I come into the grand entrance to greet my sister and brother just as they’re entering the portico.
“Hey!” I say cheerfully, opening my arms to Valerie. “I’m glad you’re here! The cookie bake is still going on.”
“Oh, dear God, I forgot all about the cookie bake!” she says as she removes her coat. “I heard it was quite the family affair last year. I missed it because of Meg.”
“Well, there’ll be none of that this year,” I say, handing her coat to Windsor while Elliot does the same with his coat. “I’ve probably tripled all my recipes, so there’s plenty more to cook.”
“Tripled?” she asks. “Why?”
“I’m filling cookie tins,” I say. “I’m going to give more away. Plus, you know Christmas was kind of sprung on me this year, so I’m cooking enough food to feed all of Seattle!” I add with a laugh.
“I’m kidding,” I say as my sister and brother laugh with me, “but I anticipate that there will be way too many leftovers for my family, even with guests staying over. So, we’ll be packing up some food for the homeless. I thought cookies would be nice, too, you know?”
“Jesus, Montana, this place looks like Santa’s workshop!” Elliot says, looking around at the explosion of decorations. I look around, too, and roll my eyes.
“Yeah,” I sigh. “I think I may have gotten a little carried away…”
“A little?” Val says. “There are ginormous Christmas bulbs on your lawn and a life-sized Mary and Joseph cradling a six-pound-seven-ounce baby Jesus before we even get in the gate!”
“Oh, wonderful!” I exclaim. “The nativity scene arrived! They didn’t even tell me. How does it look?”
“Like Bethlehem!” Val informs me. I’m giddy with excitement.
“Oh, I have to go see it!” I say, turning to retrieve my coat.
“No need,” Val says. “I took pictures.” She pulls out her phone and opens her gallery. I scroll through picture after picture of various angles of the nativity in the snow outside of my gates complete with an illuminated star above it.
The three wise men, various barn and field animals, angels, the star of Bethlehem, and of course, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. She even has pictures of the house with the lights and the giant bulbs as you approach.
“Oh, Gosh, it’s beautiful,” I say wistfully.
“Steele, it’s insane. What brought this on?” I sigh and twist my lips at her.
“Oh, come on,” I say, “I know it’s over-the-top, but isn’t it great? I feel like Buddy in that movie Elf. It makes you feel like a kid again, and my babies love it! Come on in. Wait until you see how happy everybody is.”
“Where’s Christian?” Elliot asks as they fall in step behind me.
“At work,” I reply. He and Val look at each other.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Val says.
“Yep,” I say dismissively. He’ll probably be working tomorrow, too. “Come on, I don’t think you’ve met Chuck’s parents.” I lead the way into the family room where Maddie and Nelson have settled in. Once Elliot and Val catch up to me, I introduce them to Maddie.
“Oh, geez, you guys are cooking and baking cookies. What’s a guy to do?” I hand Val an apron.
“Well, you can help out, or you can go get your coat and go to the barbeque kitchen. Chuck and Nelson are back there smoking meat.”
“I’ll take the barbeque kitchen, thank you,” he says, going to retrieve his coat.
“Okay, Steele, seriously, what are these?” I turn around and see Val looking at the assortment of new cookies on the counters.
“The sugar-cookie-and-icing Christmas tree stacks are Sophie’s creation.” I gesture to Sophie and she curtsies. Val smiles and nods at her.
“Those big, bulky looking sweaters with the white icing—I kind of shaped those by hand. I got the idea from a cable-knit sweater that I was wearing yesterday.”
“You shaped those by hand, Steele?” she asks, and I nod. “That’s pretty good.”
“Thanks,” I reply. “The shapes got a little better when Ms. Solomon informs me that we have cookie cutters, and that’s where these Christmas sweaters came from.” I gesture to the sweaters with different color icing and designs on them.
“Then, of course, she introduced me to the rest of the cookie cutters, and that’s where all the shaped gingerbread cookies came from.”
“What about those?” she asks, pointing to larger gingerbread men and women holding candy canes. “They’re darker. They’re not burnt, are they?”
“No,” I say with a giggle. “That creation is credited to Maddie. That’s a chocolate gingerbread cookie. It’s moist and very tasty, and you get a second treat with it.”
“Oh! Okay, but how are they holding onto the candy canes? Wouldn’t they have melted in the oven?” Val presses.
“Probably,” I tell her, “but Maddie wrapped the dough around chopsticks, then stuck the hands together and baked them that way. Once they were done, we had to carefully remove the chopstick and insert the candy canes. There were more than a few casualties.”
“We ate the evidence,” Maddie interjects, and we laugh. Our laughter is interrupted by Jason walking into the room.
“Hello, ladies,” he says announcing his presence, and various women reply as he walks over to Gail. “Hello, love,” he says quietly while kissing her on the cheek. She blushes a bit and I feel a twinge of envy… just a twinge.
“Maddie, it’s good to see you,” he says to Maddie. “Was your flight okay?”
“As well as can be expected for flying,” she says warmly, giving him a hug.
“You’re here, so that must mean that Christian is present,” Val says. “Where is he, parking the car?” she jests.
“You’ve got jokes,” Jason says with a chuckle, then turns to me.
“He’s in the gym,” he says. “GEH was a bit of a shi… boo-boo storm today, especially with Ros gone.” I furrow my brow.
“I’m an old lady, Jason, but you certainly don’t have to censor yourself for me,” Maddie says. “I’ve heard worse, I assure you.” He smiles at her.
“No offense, lovely lady, but it’s for the babies,” Jason says. “Her Highness insists that we use no profanity around the prince and princess.”
“Her Highness?” Maddie repeats and looks at me. I scoff and Val laughs.
“Did you have to say that?” I lament.
“Never knew what you were getting yourself into when you started that, did you?” he chuckles.
“You started that?” Maddie says with a laugh.
“It was a joooooooooke!” I whine. “When he first met me, he kept calling me ma’am and it was driving me nuts. I told him to call me ‘Ana’ and he just wouldn’t. I made several suggestions—Doctor Lady, Pookie… I would have preferred he called me Pookie than this!”
“I wouldn’t,” Gail says matter-of-factly while removing a tray of freshly baked sugar cookies from the oven.
“I wouldn’t mind it so much, but he calls me Her Highness all the time. He only calls me Ana when it slips or when he’s really serious about something. Even the security staff at GEH knows me as Her Highness!” I complain.
“Well, you get what you ask for,” he retorts.
“I asked for Ana!” I counter.
“Too late. It’s Your Highness now,” he says with a smile as he steals a warm sugar cookie. Gail slaps his hand, but she’s too slow.
“Ros is gone?” I ask, bringing the conversation back around. “Gone where?”
“Not gone gone,” Jason clarifies, swallowing the cookie. “She’s on vacation.” My frown deepens.
“Wait a minute… Ros is on vacation while all this shi—… crap is going on?” I ask incredulously.
“I don’t know all the details. You’ll have to ask him, but yeah, she’s gone until after the new year.” Hmmm, so on top of all the GEH bullshit, he’s now dealing with this crap one man… woman short, and every cell in my being is telling me that she did this shit on purpose.
“I know that look, and I’m shamelessly making my getaway,” Jason says. “Where are the men hiding?”
“In the outdoor barbeque kitchen,” Gail says, opening the refrigerator and retrieving a bottle of beer. “Nelson and Chuck are smoking meat and Elliot is out there with them.”
“Hey! Christmas festivities without me?” Harmony says making an entrance from the front of the house.
“Another woman. I’m out,” Jason says, escaping towards the back of the house and the barbeque kitchen.
“Hey, Harmony,” Gail says. “Grab an apron and a potholder. We could certainly use an extra set of hands…” I’m rolling out crust for one of the apple pies and Val walks over to me.
“You didn’t know about that?” she asks. “Ros is like his second in command, right?” I nod, trying to concentrate on rolling the crust out evenly.
“I don’t know much about what’s going on at GEH lately,” I say, perfectly rolling the dough to place into the pie pan.
“You’re half-owner of the company. How do you not know?” she asks, moving the pie pan closer to me. I carefully place the crust into the pan and begin to form it into the crevices.
“That’s not how they treat me,” I say, lowering my voice and brushing the crust with butter. “They tolerate me when I’m there. If I speak, someone could lose their job, and that’s all they really care about. The last time I was there, Christian said that he was doing an audit of the departments to find out why things aren’t being done. Ros asked him right in front of me if legal was going to be audited, too.” Val’s brow furrows.
“Al’s department?” she asks. “Is he fucking up, too?” I glare at her and realize that her voice is too low for the twins to hear her in the next room.
“No,” I reply matter-of-factly. “She illuminated the nepotism and made a point that the other departments would clearly see the favoritism if legal wasn’t audited, too. The bitch didn’t even have the guts to look me in the eye when she was saying that shit!” I hiss quietly as I add the homemade apple mixture into the pie crust.
“Hm,” Val says, “and now she conveniently takes a vacation right in the middle of a shitstorm.”
“Right in the middle!” I snap quietly. “He comes in every day and goes straight to the workout room, and she figures that now is a good time to go see Bermuda!” I nearly growl as quietly as I can so as not to draw attention to myself. I’m fighting not to get angry, but I really want to throw something right now. Val looks knowingly at me.
“What?” I ask, besides the fucking obvious.
“Is that why this place looks like the North Pole?” she asks, pointing around herself at the overload of decorations. Looking at them, I’m quickly feeling a bit Christmasy again.
“I just want to be happy, Val,” I tell her. “It’s Christmas. It’s time for eggnog… and cookies… and outrageous decorations… and family… and I just want to be happy.” I shrug and she smiles softly.
“Then let’s be happy,” she says. “You want to do the lattice on that pie, or should I?”
My sister… my friend…
I still haven’t seen Christian once I’ve put my children down to sleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.
I’m almost certain that in addition to what may be going on at GEH, he’s avoiding me. It might be a good idea that he’s avoiding me, because I don’t know what to say to him and he clearly doesn’t know what to say to me.
But tomorrow’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake.
We normally exchange a gift on Christmas Eve, but I haven’t seen him in four days. He probably didn’t even buy a gift for me! We didn’t even adopt a family this year because we had the Family Reunion instead of the Family Affair, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise since I’m fighting to make sure that this particular Christmas season doesn’t turn out to be a dud.
I spend another evening in my marble tub to make sure that I don’t awake stiff as a board. Tomorrow’s Christmas. I’ll have a house full of people and no matter how I feel, I’ve got to entertain. Ms. Solomon has banned me from the kitchen and although I won’t be cooking, I hate to tell her that there are going to be some moments when I’m going to be in there.
Harmony, Val and Elliot, and Maddie and Nelson are all tucked away in the guest rooms as well
I’ve laid out Minnie and Mikey’s Christmas attire, complete with two additional Christmas wardrobe changes should they ruin their first outfits. I’ve even carefully chosen my own clothing and this house is going to be drowning in Yuletide joy if I have to shit it out of my own ass!
I climb into bed in a flannel nightshirt, all warm and snuggly, and it doesn’t take long for me to fall off to sleep.
I awake to an empty bed… again. He was here; I can tell. There’s a fire going in the fireplace and his side of the bed has been slept in, but had it not been for those signs, I never would have known he was here.
There’s no warmth around me like he held me at all. I don’t feel any love or hate or anything from him. Four days and not a fucking word. It’s almost like he doesn’t exist… like I don’t exist.
He leaves before I wake.
He works until the very late hours of the evening or if he does come home, he makes sure he doesn’t encounter me until I’m asleep.
The only thing that lets me know that the man isn’t dead is that there’s no APB out on him.
The only communication that he’s had with me over the last several days is an email that he sent to the entire executive staff about the drug tests.
Maddie and Nelson arrived two days ago, and I don’t even know if he has spoken to them.
Any other time he hasn’t seen me, he would call me or text me or something. Although I know this goes both ways, I haven’t heard a thing out of him—not a peep.
He clearly wants to be left alone. He’s either still licking his wounds, his work has him all tied up and I’m very much the second thought, or he’s trying to teach me a lesson. Is he still in an internal uproar about what I said this weekend? Is this his way of lashing out at me… or punishing me?
Well, at least he didn’t fly to fucking Madrid!
I throw the covers off and get out of bed.
A/N: NEW CHRISTMAS PINTEREST PAGE
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